Lawsuit loss for Stanislaus County: $1.8M

kcarlson@modbee.comJuly 11, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textKen Carlson
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: County government, health and medicine, air quality, the environment and public pension systems
    Bio: Ken Carlson has worked 13 years for The Bee, covering local government agencies in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His in-depth reporting has focused on access to health care and public employee pensions.
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    E-mail: kcarlson@modbee.com

— A judge ruled that a forensic pathologist who was fired by Stanislaus County authorities in 2007 should be awarded $1.8 million.

Superior Court Judge Wil- liam Mayhew ruled the Sheriff's Department and the county illegally broke their contract with Dr. Robert Lawrence when they dismissed him and then hired his employee, Sung-Ook Baik, as the county's forensic pathologist.

The court is finalizing the judgment in the five-year-old civil case. Mayhew awarded $1.37 million to Lawrence plus 10 percent interest back to July 2010.

Stockton attorney Michael Dyer claimed that county officials could have avoided the expense of the lengthy court case if they had accepted Lawrence's original offer to settle the matter for $360,000.

County Counsel John Doering said Thursday the county doesn't "agree with the results and we are checking to see if there are grounds for appeal." County officials believed they were correct in terminating the contract for autopsy and forensic services in order to save the taxpayers money.

The May 2008 lawsuit named the county, Sheriff's Department, Baik and Sheriff Adam Christianson as defendants. Christianson was not held individually liable by the ruling. The ruling came months after facts in the case were presented at a bench trial in late October and early November.

Lawrence, the owner of Forensic Consultants Medical Group of Stockton, signed a five-year contract with the county in July 2005 and then sought to amend it 18 months later because the money received was not covering expenses, his attorney said.

The Sheriff's Department and Lawrence amended the deal to increase payments for autopsies and agreed they would negotiate a new overall contract to replace the five-year deal. But those negotiations never took place.

Christianson, who was elected in 2006 and also holds the office of coroner, worked secretly to hire another forensic pathologist for the county to replace Lawrence, the lawsuit charged.

Baik was a probationary employee for Forensic Consultants in 2007 and Lawrence had planned to assign him as the county's medical examiner after county officials approved his work. But the doctor, who then lived in Buffalo, N.Y., told Lawrence he did not wish to move to California.

Christianson and others had secretly met with Baik over lunch and offered him the position to replace Lawrence, Dyer said.

"Once Dr. Baik agreed, then Adam Christianson terminated the five-year contract (with Lawrence) that had more than three years left on it," Dyer said.

Baik was subsequently paid less than what the county was paying to Lawrence. County officials say Baik has done excellent work for the coroner's office.

Dyer said that Lawrence's lawsuit in May 2008 sought to recover the amount he would have received if his contract had run through June 2010.

Mayhew ruled that the county violated the contract with the August 2007 letter, in which Christianson notified Lawrence that he would no longer provide services for the coroner's office. The ruling says the sheriff wrongly believed he could terminate the contract. Mayhew disagreed with the county's position that the original contract essentially was terminated when the two sides did not discuss a new contract.

"Obviously, the parties could have negotiated a new agreement, but for whatever reason, each chose not to do so," the ruling says. "In the court's view, that leaves the original contract, as amended, in full force."

Mayhew's ruling says that county officials had legal grounds for being heavy-handed, instead of sneaky, in dealing with Lawrence's request in early 2007 to amend his contract. In the judge's view, officials could have allowed Lawrence to break the contract and then sued him for damages to require him to satisfy the terms.

Officials had worried a contract dispute would leave the county without doctors to perform autopsies and handle forensic pathology work requested by the district attorney's office.

Christianson declined Thursday to discuss the ruling, referring questions to the county counsel's office.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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